Closer Look at John Singleton Copley’s Head of a Negro

In Art Collecting, Art History, Art Museums, Artists
Head of A Negro, John Singleton Copley - Available to Be Viewed at the Detroit Institute of Arts

It's closed beta user testing time and I had so much fun with one user who saw both the following piece and Watson and the Shark during our review of the app together.

The user was a black man who got the opportunity to see a reflection of himself in a historical piece. He appeared to be very surprised to see a historical piece that painted a black man with such love and care. He immediately believed that this piece must have been painted by a black man and was surprised to find that it was painted by a white man and commissioned by the Lord Mayor of London Sir Brook Watson. "When compared with other eighteenth-century (and, to be fair, nineteenth-century) images of Africans, Copley’s paintings seem both honest and dignified."
John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, 182.1 x 229.7 cm (National Gallery of Art)

In the second portrait of the man, Copley painted the figure in "figure a place of particular compositional importance, and he alone holds the rope that links the victim to the boat."

According to the Chicago Tribune's Michael Kilian, "The boatmen struggling so heroically to keep the shark from Watson include a black seaman, prompting many to wonder if he symbolized a hatred of slavery on the part of Copley.

The theme of the picture is overall one of independence, defiance and struggle, leading to one theory that Copley, an avowed Tory, might secretly have been a supporter of the American Revolution."

CUNY Chair Margaret Rose Vendryes wrote that prior to this painting being commissioned, Watson met Phillis Wheatley at a gathering given in her honor in London. As the Lord Mayor, he presented her with a copy of the 1770 Glasgow folio edition of Paradise Lost. She writes, "Not only did Watson acknowledge the talents of this negro woman in a public setting but allowed this gesture to be immortalized for future generations. This could be a clue to Brook Watson's attitude towards the negro as an individual, seen in a totally different light from that of slavery's economic gain."

In an unpublished letter (until 1979), Wheatley directly states that her meeting with Watson and others in England led to her freedom. She states:

Since my return to America my Master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom.

Phillis Wheatley, 1773




I should probably keep writing something to come up with some strong conclusion, but I don't want to speculate. These are the facts as far as I could find and you can make up inferences as you see fit.

Further Reading

  • Masur, L. (1994). Reading Watson and the Shark. The New England Quarterly, 67(3), 427-454. doi:10.2307/366146
  • Boime, Albert. "Blacks in Shark-Infested Waters," Smithsonian Studies in Art 3 (Winter 1989): 31.
  • McElroy, Guy. Facing History: The Black Image in American Art. 1710-1940 (Washingtonon, D.C.: Bedford Arts. 1990) 6.